The parish church is a smooth yellow sandstone building, cruciform shaped. A glazed porch narthex with swing doors leads into the main body of the church, where one finds bilingual Stations of the Cross (Welsh and English) on plain white painted walls, along with memorials to benefactors. There is a gallery with pipe organ at the west end. The high altar is of white marble and includes a tabernacle. Coloured glass windows show St Winefride, St Werburga, St Beuno, et al. Glass doors in the north aisle section off St Winefride's chapel, where a huge marble state of St Winefride rests on a pediment. Other chapels include the Lady altar on south side and the Chapel of Sodality. There are also a bookstall and piety stall as well as confessionals. At the shrine itself, to which we processed from the church, there was an altar with crimson velvet frontal and seating for clergy behind. Two floral arrangements in red and white stood either side of the altar. A credence table with communion vessels was presided over by a gent looking every bit as though he was presenting the prizes at school sports day.
St Winefride's parish was founded by Jesuits in the 19th century and entrusted to the Society of Divine Vocations, better known as the Vocationist Fathers, in 2008, the first parish in the United Kingdom to be so administered. St Winefride is sometimes called the "Welsh Lazarus" and St Winefride's Well the "Welsh Lourdes".
Holywell, in North Wales, was an important lead and copper mining town in the 18th century. Today's Holywell is a small market town, with many fine old Georgian buildings along the high street. Winefride's Well and Chapel are about a quarter of a mile down the hill from the church, which is closer to the town centre. St James Church (C of E) is next door to the well. Also nearby lie the ruins of Basingwerke Abbey. The Pilgrims' Way runs from here to St David's in Pembrokeshire.
The Rt Revd Peter Brignall, Bishop of Wrexham, presided. He was assisted by the Revd Anil Akkara, SDV, parish priest; the Revd Roy Kottakupuram, SDV, assistant priest; the Revd Luigi Morrone, SDV; and the Revd Mr Peter Hunt, deacon.
What was the name of the service?Annual Pilgrimage to St Winefride's Well and Corpus Christi Procession.
How full was the building?
The church was three-quarters full at the start. At the well I counted approximately 250.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A gentleman on the steps outside the church, where the troops were mustering, said: "Hello. Have you come far? Can you steward? Were looking for volunteers." I did not volunteer, however.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was OK, nice and wide. At the shrine itself, as a break with tradition, the mass was celebrated inside a giant marquee specially hired for the occasion (it is normally celebrated in the open air under a gazebo). There was seating inside the marquee for about 100 people on white plastic patio chairs and 1930s fold-up wooden seats.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Prayerful, with recitation of the Rosary. Then it started to get livelier with a lot of coming and going and a hubbub in the porch area. I got up and closed the doors! They were soon wrenched open again and the bier bearers strode purposely down the nave to pick up and carry St Winefride for the procession to the shrine and the well, a short walk away.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"We gather in this holy place for the annual pilgrimage to St Winefride's Well and to receive the sacred Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Jerusalem Mass Sheet for Corpus Christi. Separate hymn sheet.
What musical instruments were played?
Keyboard. The singing was led by nuns of the Order of the Most Holy Saviour, more commonly known as the Bridgettines, who are resident at Holywell (they run the little guest house there).
Did anything distract you?
The sides of the marquee had been raised for ventilation and the WC doors (the toilets being a short stones throw from the marquee) banged consistently throughout. Two little girls in their best Sunday outfits sitting in the pew next to me giggled incessantly. I also spied two young boys (possibly twins) in their matching white first communion suits, with swirly patterned shaven hair-dos. The suits had a lurex (metallic yarn) cross on the back.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Sombre and serious (no hilarity, please, we are in church!). The procession was led by a Land Rover with loudspeaker over which Father recited the Rosary. Making up the order of procession were the Union of Catholic Mothers, followed by the first communion children in their first communion outfits, then the remaining schoolchildren. Next came the robed clergy and the relic of St Winefride (carried by the deacon). The shrine custodian carried the banner of St Winefride. Then came the Knights of St John, the Bridgettine Sisters, and finally all the camp followers and hangers-on bringing up the rear. Police were also present, ensuring our safety en route. We wended our way slowly down the hill to the well gardens, passing a small group of Protestant reformers brandishing their banners and sticking leaflets under windscreen wiper blades of cars parked along the procession route. A man standing next to me told me that the bishop was quite insistent that the mass should have more emphasis placed on it this year. Following the mass, there was benediction and veneration of the relic of St Winefride. But it was well past 5.00pm and people had started to drift away. Some commented that it had gone on much longer than usual.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – Bishop Peter Brignall used notes. I thought his style was somewhat disjointed and so difficult to follow.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Man does not live by bread alone. The Bread of Life is the food for eternal life. So get yourself to mass regularly.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
It was very pleasant being in the Welsh countryside on a summers afternoon surrounded by nature, being wafted by the scent of lime trees.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
It didn't feel like a celebration at all for some reason rather depressing, in fact. This is the bishop's second year in harness. He comes over as rather pompous and stern, and I think the congregation had picked up on his mood.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The service sheet gave notice that refreshments "were to be served at the guest house by the Bridgettine Sisters and the UCM." There was a good turnout for the refreshments, with the nuns manning the teapots. A cheery atmosphere abounded! I was given a leaflet with information about the guest house it seems very clean and comfortable and reasonably priced.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There were tea and coffee, sandwiches and cakes, for purchasing. I didn't avail myself of the refreshments, however, as I'd brought my own picnic, which I ate in solitary splendour in the overgrown C of E churchyard next to the well gardens. The gift shop and piety stall in the pilgrimage centre were closed; people were trying the door and were disappointed at not being able to buy their souvenirs. But the loos were open and the lavatory doors were still banging!
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – I would contemplate using this as my regular worship centre. The setting is lovely and the people are friendly and welcoming.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I was disappointed that there was no real spiritual feel. It needed enlivening somehow.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The two young boys with the swirly patterned hair and the lurex crosses.